Coffee is so ingrained in Italian culture that the idea of not drinking it is as foreign as the idea of having a spaghetti bolognese.
As with everything food and drink related, the Italians do not like to over-complicate things. That being said, here are the commandments of ordering coffee in Italy.
1. A “bar” is really a “cafe”
The number of places labeled “bar” in your average Italian city would make you think all Italians have a drinking problem. They do: a coffee drinking problem! That’s because a “bar” is actually what people in the UK would call a “cafe.” (And, confusingly, a caffè actually means a “coffee”… but more on that later).
2. You should only have milk in your coffee in the morning.
Any milky coffee, such as cappuccino should only be drunk in the morning, and most definitely not after a meal. If you drink them at any other time you are marking yourself out as a newbie in the “cult of coffee.”
3. Keep your coffee simple.
If you’re wanting your usual Starbucks “skinny frappe latte with a double shot of syrup” in Italy, you’re out of luck. Asking for that in Italy is the equivalent of ordering a fine single malt whisky in a pub in Scotland, and then asking if they can put lemonade and an umbrella in it.
When you enter you local bar in Italy locate the cashier. Order your coffee and keep your receipt, or ‘scontrino’, which you will hand over to the bartender.
Your order should be one of the following…:
Caffè or ‘Caffe normale’: These terms are used interchangeably and signify one single, 3 oz shot of espresso in a demitasse porcelain cup.
Doppio: ‘Double’, or two shots of espresso.
Americano or Lungo: A ‘long’ espresso that has twice as much water, creating a thinner brew.
Ristretto: A ‘reduced’ espresso that uses half the amount of water.
Macchiato: Espresso that is ‘marked’ with a splash of milk or milk foam. The bartender may ask if you want hot or cold milk.
Cappuccino: Espresso with equal parts steamed milk and topped with foamed milk. Usually ordered at breakfast and never ordered after lunch.
Caffè Corretto: Espresso that is ‘corrected’ with a liquor such as Grappa or Cognac.
Caffè Latte: A large cup of latte, or milk, marked with a shot of espresso. Never ask for a “latte” as you’ll just get a glass of hot milk (“latte” is milk in Italian.)
Caffè Shakerato: Espresso shaken with ice cubes with simple syrup, often served in a cocktail glass.
4. Never say ‘espresso.’
Outside Italy we are used to asking for an espresso if we want a short, intense hit of coffee. However in Italy this is a technical term, not in everyday use. Just ask for a ‘caffe’ or ‘caffe normale.’
5. The ‘pausa.’
The idea that you take a long time to linger over a large coffee while uploading your holiday photos to Facebook is completely alien to an Italian, and so is the idea of a “take-away” coffee.
Whether you’re in a hurry or not, you’ll be expected to prop up the bar with the locals, or – for a slight premium – perch at a tiny table.
A coffee break is known as ‘una pausa’ (a pause) and that is quite literally what it is. Take a few bites from a brioche, neck your hot espresso (three gulps maximum), pontificate about last night’s football match or the latest political corruption scandal with the barista, and be on your way.
6. Some like it hot.
Following on from the last commandment, coffee is normally served at a temperature that allows you to down it quickly. If you would like something that will burn your lips and tongue ask for a ‘caffè bollente.’
7. Keep your coffee simple – part two.
One of the best things about Italian coffee is that whether you’re in a bar in a remote mountain village, or standing cheek by jowl in a Florence piazza, the standard of coffee will be exactly the same. The flavour will be similar, so don’t expect a choice of fifteen different beans.
The absence of foreign coffee chains is noticeable, as are the hipster coffee bars. As we can see from commandment number 5, no Italian would be willing to wait for a barista to prepare a personalized ‘pour-over’ or make a pretty pattern with the chocolate on top of their cappuccino.
Italian baristas are ultra-professional and the speed that they operate during the breakfast rush is a sight to behold.
8. Little and often.
Italians drink coffee regularly in small amounts. Seven or eight espressos a day isn’t unheard of – in the morning for a caffeine boost to kick-start the day; after lunch to aid with digestion and avoid post-meal lethargy, and in the afternoon during ‘una pausa’, etc…
9. Some final tips.
In bars, coffee is often served with a small glass of water; the water is supposed to be drunk first to cleanse the palate.
In some busy bars (especially train stations), you must pay for your coffee upfront at a till and then present your receipt to the barista.
Coffee in Italy is refreshingly cheap; if you’re paying more than €2 you’re being ripped off.
After reading this, you might feel like you’ll panic when you order your first coffee in Italy. However, remember the commandments, and it will be just like falling off a log!